From uncoordinated beginner to inspirational instructor, Sensei Tony Braiden tells Shimbun about the pride and pain of following in his daughters’ footsteps…
IT IS a measure of the modesty of Sensei Tony Braiden that the highlight of his decade-long love affair with karate does not concern one of his own significant successes in the sport. Despite being able to refer to a rapid rise through the gradings to 1st Dan and countless tournament triumphs, the 63-year-old insists his finest hour came watching his youngest daughter Olivia receive her black belt last year.
“That was by far my proudest moment in karate,” Tony told Shimbun. “She’d had a bumpy old ride to get there and it was great to see her pull through on the day of the grading. She made it look as though it was second nature, which of course it never is.
“That moment certainly eclipses getting my own black belt and was more important to me.”
However, Tony’s delight at seeing others excel in the dojo extends far beyond his immediate family. Having been an instructor for more than five years, Olivia is but one of hundreds of students he has helped to climb the GKR Karate gradings ladder.
“I love being there when students successfully progress to their next belt,” he said. “When you see them grade – the kids especially – they have a beam on their face that reminds you how glad you are to be involved with karate.
“It makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing; I’ve taught them and done the best I can for them and then, when it really counts, they show what they’ve learnt. There is a real sense of pride and feeling of worth in seeing a student performing really well.”
It is a perk of a role that Tony never imagined he would be qualified to fill when he first sampled kata and kumite only ten years ago. While Olivia’s black belt stands out as Tony’s proudest moment in karate, another of his daughters can claim credit for getting him in a gi. The popular sensei’s initial contact with the sport came when the then-53-year-old went to watch his eldest child Emily grade to yellow belt. Impressed by the skills on show, he vowed to give it a go “just to see if I could actually do it”.
“But like everyone else during their first few classes, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” added Tony, who believed his experience of playing squash and swimming regularly would stand him in good stead.
“I considered myself fairly fit until I started karate and was actually quite shocked at how uncoordinated I was and how difficult I found it to understand what I was supposed to be doing. I’m not what you would call a natural but it became a personal challenge and I kept banging away at it until I got it right. It didn’t come easily, but when you do get karate right it feels fantastic and I focused on mastering one technique before moving on to the next.
“You could say I was motivated by personal frustration – I wasn’t looking to be better than anyone else, I was just looking to be better than I was!”
Tony’s self-improvement drive ultimately led to him becoming an instructor and an ongoing father-and-daughter competition over who can win the most medals – a contest Olivia is leading by five. The Braidens haul of national and regional awards is certainly impressive and even more so given dad’s original motivation for testing his skills at tournament karate.
Demonstrating that those at the front of a class know only too well the worries of their students, Tony explained: “When I used to do my grade kata I would get really nervous and get a mental block.
“I would freeze halfway through a kata and decided to try a tournament to see if exposing myself to more pressure would improve my nerves. It didn’t always work but it helped and the experience of competition also taught me that if wanted to be good at what I did, I had to be a lot better and that made me focus on my karate all the more.”
Tony’s efforts to banish his nerves have paid dividends both personally – as evidenced by the colour of the belt around his waist and his impressive collection of 22 medals – and for all those who train and benefit from his wisdom at his packed Farnham and North Camp classes. Having conquered his own crisis of confidence, the mild-mannered sensei recognises how others are feeling and has developed an instinct for knowing when to push students harder and when to provide reassuring words of encouragement. And while he believes arthritis may end his ambition of winning a World Cup medal, the GKR Karate veteran has no intention of hanging up his gi any time soon.
“Over the last year or so I’ve noticed that if I get punched or kicked a little too hard, I don’t recover as quickly as I used to,” concluded Tony, whose middle daughter Imogen also stayed true to the Braiden family tradition and impressed in the dojo. “But I still like the training and pushing myself as hard as I can. I am a little bit slower than I was and you’re not going to find me charging around the dojo like crazy, but as long as people are still willing to listen to me and I am conveying the right information, I will keep going.”
* this interview originally featured in Issue #1 in spring 2019.